Olympic dream materialises at long last for Ireland

Men’s hockey coach Craig Fulton ecstatic as Australia win secures place at Rio 2016



Craig Fulton

says that finally dealing with the “hurt” of missing on London 2012 played a pivotal part in building the mental resolve of his side to mount their first successful Olympic qualifying campaign.


He was speaking after Ireland were confirmed as the 11th side of 12 to qualify for Rio 2016 in the early hours of Sunday morning courtesy of Australia's 3-2 victory over New Zealand in the Oceania Cup final.

The continental championship offered a ticket to Rio but the Kookaburras had already qualified for the Games via the World League earlier in 2015.

As such, Ireland were the next best placed team on the world list and took the place after a stellar year. It will be the first time Ireland have played in the Olympics since 1908.

Crucially, Ireland beat higher-ranked Pakistan and Malaysia in Antwerp in July to finish fifth at World League Round 3, putting them on the shortlist for Olympic spots.

They followed up with a first ever bronze medal at the European Championships, outdoing the world number four and five sides Belgium and England, respectively, in the process.

Illustrious opponents

In each case, they came through in narrow clinches with a series of single goal wins over more illustrious opponents. It was a far cry from 2012 when Ireland’s London hopes went up in smoke just seven seconds from the final whistle against Korea.

Coach Paul Revington stepped down soon after while his replacement Andrew Meredith only lasted 15 months in the post.

Enter Craig Fulton in early 2014, a former Olympian with South Africa who also worked as assistant to Revington in the Irish set-up. In order to avoid a repeat of that loss to Korea, Fulton said it was important to push his players to relive that lowest of moments.

“I knew it hadn’t been debriefed; I knew I couldn’t go through another qualifying process without dealing with that whole situation,” he said.

“It’s about failing forward, taking the positives and we found two or three things that we had to change.

“When the guys looked at it again, they saw the lessons and not the disappointment and hurt. That’s important because the hurt doesn’t help us especially as it was always going to be something you never want to discuss or talk about.

“It was all around the mental approach, executing in the key moments. In terms of improving the mental side, you also need to be better conditioned. We took this to another level.”

The increased mental toughness saw Ireland cling on to a 1-0 win over Pakistan in the face of a late onslaught and they produce similarly strong fightbacks against the Belgians and English. Typifying this attitude, both Paul Gleghorne played through a tear to his shoulder muscles while Ronan Gormley fought through a wrist injury to produce immense performances.

Despite the excellent results, Ireland still had to wait three months to finally get confirmation of their ticket to Rio as the other continental championships were contested.

Sunday finally meant realisation of a moment that Fulton had visualised many times in his tenure.

“I have probably thought about this day a thousand times, maybe more, in the last 18 months. Everything since taking the job has been geared towards this moment, making history and qualifying.

“We have had good campaigns before, good teams and come as close as it gets but haven’t been able to get over the line. . .”

And now he is hoping to build momentum and support for the team. Key to this is getting more home fixtures against the world’s top sides in the next year to attract more supporters – and potentially a sponsor.

“I’m ecstatic and really proud but, at the same time, it hasn’t really sunk in. The enormity of it will build in the next eight or nine months, more people will find out what the team is about.”

Stephen Findlater

Stephen Findlater

Stephen Findlater is a contributor to The Irish Times writing about hockey